With her State of the Union guest, Susan Wild highlighted sky-high prescription costs. President Trump said Congress should send him legislation to slash those costs.

February 5, 2020
In The News

Lehigh Valley Congresswoman Susan Wild says it’s the problem she hears about more than any other: the skyrocketing cost of insulin, a life-or-death drug for those attempting to manage diabetes.

To underscore the need for policy action on the high price of insulin and other prescription drugs, the freshman Democratic lawmaker used a traditional tool: inviting a guest to the State of the Union to put a human face to the issue.

Watching the president’s speech in the House gallery was Allentown resident Yamelisa Taveras, a 34-year-old community activist who was diagnosed with diabetes as a child. Like others across the country, Taveras has had to ration her insulin during several periods, including a recent stretch after her insulin pump broke.

Insulin prices have risen steadily in the past decade, significantly outpacing the cost of making the medication, and about 1 in 4 insulin-dependent diabetics ration insulin because of high costs, according to a Yale University survey.

“The idea that somebody knows that there is something out there that can save their life and yet they are either hindered in getting it or prevented from getting it because of the cost is heart-breaking to me,” Wild said in an interview Tuesday afternoon in her Capitol Hill office. “It’s unconscionable. If we can’t fix that problem, what’s the point of having legislators?”

It’s a message that other Democratic lawmakers also emphasized. A tally from STAT, a news outlet focused on health policy, listed at least a dozen other Democratic lawmakers who were hosting diabetes advocates as their State of the Union guests.

President Donald Trump has made reducing prescription drug costs a key promise. His administration rolled a 44-page blueprint to lower drug prices in May 2018, but those proposals have hit roadblocks.

In Tuesday’s speech, Trump didn’t mention insulin specifically, but talked broadly about tackling drug costs. He repeated a claim about prescription costs beginning to come down, citing data that health economists say doesn’t fully reflect spending on drug spending.

But Trump also said he wants Congress to send him “bipartisan legislation that achieves the goal of dramatically lowering prescription drug prices."

“Get a bill to my desk, and I will sign it into law immediately,” he said.

Some House Democrats, including Wild, stood up after Trump said that, chanting the number of the drug-pricing bill they passed last year.

As Trump continued with his speech, Wild tweeted that the Senate should take up that bill, H.R. 3: “If the president wants a bill to lower the cost of prescription drugs, @senatemajldr can take up the #LowerDrugCostsNow Act and Trump can sign it into law THIS WEEK.”

“We could work together on this — it would be a win for every single American,” she added.

For Democrats like Wild, the issue of health care and prescription drug costs in particular is an area where they can show they are willing to work with the administration, but also signal that he’s had a limited record so far, said Chris Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Muhlenberg College.

Finding personal stories to highlight that message can be "an effective way to get people to think and process” an issue like health care, he added.

Taveras rationed insulin when she went off her parent’s insurance in college, then found herself doing it again recently after her insulin pump broke during a holiday weekend.

Her doctor called in a backup medication so she could inject insulin until her new pump arrived a few days later. But the version that was prescribed wasn’t covered by insurance.

“Truly, many people, they would have just gone to the hospital,” Taveras said. “When it comes to insulin, you don’t really have hours or days. After a few hours, you need your medication.”

While Taveras has learned how to manage both her disease and the labyrinths of insurance coverage, Wild said others aren’t in a position to advocate for themselves in the same way.

In Wild’s district, which includes Lehigh and Northampton counties and a part of Monroe County, there are 45,000 uninsured residents, who often have to pay the full price of insulin, ration the lifesaving medication or go without, according to a June government report on diabetes and insulin prices in Pennsylvania’s 7th District.

Wild said Tuesday afternoon that if Senate Republicans don’t like the House Democrats’ prescription-drug bill, they should send back their own ideas for how to combat those costs. As for Trump, Wild said she’s willing to work with his administration on anything that would help people with their health care needs.

“I want to see us stop talking about this and do something about it,” Wild said. “And that means that we’re all going to have to learn how to work together ... and not worry about whether we’re giving one side or the other a victory that they might use in their subsequent election.”